Choosing to adopt a vegetarian diet means avoiding meat, fish, and poultry, as well as any other products that contain these ingredients like gelatin or rennet.
This means a vegetarian diet is predominantly made up of fruits, vegetables, eggs, dairy, and legumes.
There are a couple of other variations of vegetarianism where some people may exclude dairy products but allow eggs, or vice versa. This often relates to personal preferences, but individuals would still refer to themselves as vegetarians.
Top 10 Foods that Vegetarians Eat
1. Vegetables & Fruits
Vegetables and fruits, of course are staples of a vegetarian lifestyle, but there are other foods that make up this diet. There is usually a focus on ensuring individuals are eating enough protein.
Legumes, which include beans, peas, and lentils, are carbohydrate-heavy but contain an excellent source of lean protein. They also contain iron, calcium, fiber, and antioxidants, and help to lower cholesterol, the risk of diabetes, and heart disease.
Legume products can be used in obvious recipes such as bean burgers, bean chilies, or salads, as well as things within things like hummus, which contains chickpeas, or even in brownies using black beans.
3. Nuts & Seeds
Incorporating nuts, seeds, and legumes into a vegetarian diet is a great way to provide essential nutrients.
Nuts and seeds are an excellent source of protein and an even better source of healthy fats, including mono and polyunsaturated plant oils. They are calorie-dense, which means they are a good way to make sure you are meeting your calorie goals, and not under-eating when transitioning to this diet.
Generally, eggs and dairy products like milk, cheese, butter, and yogurt are included within a vegetarian diet, and it is this that sets it apart from veganism. It allows for more varied meals, and more options when eating in restaurants, as they are key ingredients for many recipes.
Eggs offer many nutritional benefits as they are a great source of protein, and provide important vitamins like D, B12, and minerals like calcium. They are also incredibly versatile and can be the main part of a dish like in an omelet, scrambled eggs, or even an ingredient in a recipe like pasta, shakshuka, or when baking cakes.
There is such a variety of dairy products, with many different kinds of cheese, types of cream, and milk, that are used in almost every aspect of the cooking process. They contain high levels of calcium, are a substantial source of fat, and contain protein; in fact, milk whey is the major component in many protein powders.
If lactose intolerance is a concern, then vegetarians can choose to eat goat cheese or sheep cheese like feta, as these are usually better tolerated by the body because of the lower levels of lactose.
6. Plant Meat
There are many different brands that create meat imitation products, like Tofurky, Quorn, Impossible, and Beyond Meat. These can be made of many different types of plant protein, but generally, it is soy-based, as this is the most accessible and neutral-tasting option.
7. Fake Meat
Vegetarians often incorporate fake meat into their diet as it allows them to still enjoy their favorite meals, like burgers or sausages, but continue to eat plant-based foods. Some of these products can contain additives, or a long list of ingredients, making them not necessarily the healthiest choice.
Both products are made from soybeans, but tofu is created from pressed soy milk, whereas tempeh is made from fermenting the soybeans, and this results in different flavors and textures. Tofu can range from soft to firm in texture, and generally has a mild taste that easily soaks up flavor.
Tempeh, on the other hand, has a distinct nutty or earthy flavor and is usually quite chewy as it contains whole beans. This means they both have very different uses as tofu is very versatile and can be used as an ingredient to make soft cheesecakes or crunchy deep-fried pieces that marinate in a curry, whereas tempeh is usually used directly as a meat substitute.
Tofu and Tempeh are great sources of protein, with one serving of tofu having 8 grams of protein and tempeh having 16 grams, as well as being high in fiber.
Tempeh has a variety of natural benefits as containing lots of prebiotics, while tofu offers higher calcium levels.
Tofu and Tempeh products are grouped together due to the similar base ingredient, but should both be incorporated into a vegetarian diet and used in different meals to provide a well-rounded something.
A natural option that you can buy in shops or even make at home is Seitan, which is made from wheat gluten, the protein within wheat.
The process of making seitan involves mixing wheat flour and water, then kneading until a sticky dough develops.
The starch is removed by rinsing the dough, which leaves pure gluten protein, that can then be flavored and cooked by steaming or in the oven.
Seitan is incredibly high in protein, with 21 grams a serving, low in fat, and good at soaking up different flavors, which makes it a great meat replacement.
What Foods Should Vegetarians Watch Out For?
Most cheese is usually fine for vegetarians to eat, but there are many that contain rennet, which is the stomach lining of cows and sheep. It is used in the process of separating the solid milk from water, in order to form cheese.
It is becoming more common to find vegetarian-friendly versions of rennet being used in cheese, but there are certain varieties like traditional parmesan, which must contain animal rennet because of manufacturing guidelines.
Gelatin is another product to look out for, as it is made from boiled animal skin, tendons, and bones. It is usually found in anything jelly-like, including chewy candy, marshmallows, yogurts, and desserts like mousse.
Vegetarians may choose to avoid eating this, or due to the low amount of animal product, some continue to enjoy their favorite foods.
4. Soups, Gravy, or Casseroles
It is important to consider the base stock for things like soups, gravy, or casseroles, as in many instances, this might contain meat. Vegetable stock is an excellent alternative and can usually be used interchangeably.
5. Asian Dishes
There are some other dishes that appear vegetarian but actually contain meat products, like many Asian dishes which use fish sauce, or other products that contain animal lard, like pastries. It is best to confirm the ingredients used or to make your own at home.
6. Wine and Beer
Wine and beer may seem like vegetarian-friendly products, but many use animal products in the production of alcohol. This is most common in the filtration process, where manufacturers use fish swim bladders, gelatin, and casein when making the alcohol.
Wine and beer are becoming more common for companies to outline if their products are vegetarian friendly, so if this is an issue, the best advice is to check the label.
Why Do People Choose a Vegetarian Diet?
The reasons for becoming a vegetarian can often stem from wanting to follow a healthier diet, as there is a focus on consuming more fruits and vegetables.
It can also be due to ethical concerns about the treatment of animals, or even environmental reasons due to the impact animal agriculture has on climate change, with large greenhouse gas emissions, water, and energy use.
Reducing your intake of meat has also been shown to lead to lower levels of obesity, resulting in a 35% reduction in the likelihood of developing type-2 diabetes. This is often because those following this diet place a focus on eating healthy, fresh, whole foods and might even increase their levels of activity to improve their overall health.
5. Save Animals
From an environmental perspective, choosing to eat vegetarian results in 2.5 times less land being used for agriculture compared to those who eat meat, and at least 26% fewer greenhouse gas emissions.
One study outlined that, on average, a meat-eater consumes 11,000 animals in a lifetime; therefore, a vegetarian diet also saves the lives of many animals.
Final Thoughts on What Foods Do Vegetarians Eat
Remember to always speak with a healthcare professional if you choose to change your diet, or eliminate certain foods, so they can closely monitor your health and prevent any deficiencies.
Vegetarianism is associated with leading to low iron or B12 levels, because of the reduced intake of meat, so this is something to consider.
Related content: What is Veganism and How Does it Help the Environment